|Robert Erskine Childers|
Childers in uniform of the City Imperial Volunteers (CIV), 1899
25 June 1870|
Mayfair, London, England
|Died||24 November 1922
Beggars Bush Barracks, Dublin, Ireland
|Occupation||Soldier, journalist, politician, novelist|
|Political party||Sinn Féin|
|Mary Alden Osgood|
|Children||3, including Erskine Hamilton Childers|
Robert Erskine Childers DSC (25 June 1870 - 24 November 1922), universally known as Erskine Childers, was an Irish writer, whose works included the influential novel The Riddle of the Sands, and a Fenian revolutionary who smuggled guns to Ireland in his sailing yacht Asgard. He was executed by the authorities of the nascent Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War. He was the son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers; the cousin of Hugh Childers and Robert Barton; and the father of the fourth President of Ireland, Erskine Hamilton Childers.
Childers was born in Mayfair, London, the second son of Robert Caesar Childers, a translator and oriental scholar from an ecclesiastical family, and Anna Mary Henrietta Barton, from an Anglo-Irish landowning family of Glendalough House, Annamoe, County Wicklow, with interests in France such as the winery that bears their name. When Erskine was six, his father died from tuberculosis and, although seemingly healthy, Anna was confined to an isolation hospital, where she died six years later. The five children were sent to the Bartons, the family of their mother's uncle, at Glendalough, County Wicklow. They were treated kindly there and Erskine grew up knowing and loving Ireland, albeit at that stage from the comfortable viewpoint of the "Protestant Ascendancy".
At the recommendation of his grandfather, Canon Charles Childers, he was sent to Haileybury College. There he won an exhibition to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied the classical tripos and then law. He distinguished himself as the editor of Cambridge Review, the university magazine. Notwithstanding his unattractive voice and poor debating skills, he became president of the Trinity College Debating Society (the "Magpie and Stump" society). Although Erskine was an admirer of his cousin Hugh Childers, a member of the British Cabinet working for Irish home rule, at this stage he spoke vehemently against the policy in college debates. A sciatic injury sustained while hillwalking in the summer before he went up, and which was to dog him for the rest of his life, left him slightly lame and he was unable to pursue his intention of earning a rugby blue, but he became a proficient rower.
Having gained his degree in law, and planning to one day follow his cousin Hugh into the British parliament as an MP, Childers sat the competitive entry examination to become a parliamentary clerk, and early in 1895 he became a junior committee clerk in the House of Commons, with responsibility for preparing formal and legally sound bills from the proposals of the government of the day.
With many sporting ventures now closed to him because of his sciatic injury, Childers was encouraged by Walter Runciman, a friend from schooldays, to take up sailing. After picking up the fundamentals of seamanship as a deckhand on Runciman's yacht, in 1893 he bought his own "scrubby little yacht" Shulah, which he learned to sail alone on the Thames Estuary. He sold the Shulah in 1895 to a Plymouth man following a trip around the Lizard in a heavyish sea.
In 1894 while he was living in Glendalough, he bought a Dublin Bay Water Wag, a 13-foot type of sailing boat usually sailed in Dun Laoghaire, pear-shaped with a single gaff-rigged sail. He sailed this boat on Lough Dan, close to Glendalough, and he and his brother Henry used to take friends for a sail in the Water Wag. Bigger and better boats followed: by 1895 he was taking the half-deck Marguerite across the Channel and in 1897 there was a long cruise to the Frisian Islands, Norderney and the Baltic with Henry in the thirty-foot cutter Vixen: a voyage he repeated in the following spring.
These were the adventures he was to fictionalise in 1903 as The Riddle of the Sands, his most famous book and a huge bestseller. In 1903 Childers, now accompanied by his new wife Molly, was again cruising in the Frisian Islands, in Sunbeam, a boat he shared with William le Fanu and other friends from his university days. Molly's father, Dr Hamilton Osgood, arranged for a fine 28-ton yacht, Asgard, to be built for the couple as a wedding gift and Sunbeam was only a temporary measure while Asgard was being fitted out.
Asgard was Childers's last and most famous yacht: in June 1914 he used it to smuggle a cargo of 900 Mauser Model 1871 rifles and 29,000 black powder cartridges to the Irish Volunteers movement at the fishing village of Howth, County Dublin. (The Asgard was acquired by the Irish government as a sail training vessel in 1961, stored on dry land in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol in 1979, and is now exhibited at The National Museum of Ireland.
As with most men of his social background and education, Childers was originally a steadfast believer in the British Empire. Indeed, for an old boy of Haileybury, a school founded to train young men for colonial service in India, this outlook was almost inevitable, although he had given the matter some critical consideration. In 1898, as negotiations over the voting rights of British settlers in the Boer territories of Transvaal and Orange Free State failed and the Boer War broke out, he needed little encouragement when in December Basil Williams, a colleague at Westminster and already a member of the volunteer Honourable Artillery Company, suggested that they should enlist together. Childers joined the City Imperial Volunteers, something of an ad hoc force comprising soldiers from different territorial regiments, but funded by City institutions and provided with the most modern equipment. He was an artilleryman classed as a "spare driver", caring for a pair of horses and riding them in the ammunition supply train. The unit set off for South Africa on 2 February 1900; most of the new volunteers, and their officers, were seasick and it largely fell to him to care for the troop's thirty horses. After the three-week voyage it was something of a disappointment that the HAC detachment was, initially, not used. On 26 June, while escorting a supply train of slow ox-wagons, Childers first came under fire, in three days of skirmishing in defence of the column. However it was a smartly executed defence of a beleaguered infantry regiment on 3 July that established their worth and more significant engagements followed. On 24 August Childers was evacuated from the front line with trench foot to hospital in Pretoria. The seven-day journey happened to be in the company of wounded infantrymen from Cork, Ireland, and Childers noted approvingly how cheerfully loyal to Britain the men were, how resistant to any incitement in support of Home Rule, and how they had been let down only by the incompetence of their officers. This is a striking contrast to his attitude by the end of the First World War when conscription in Ireland was under consideration, when he wrote of "...young men hopelessly estranged from Britain and ... anxious to die in Ireland for Irish liberty". After a chance meeting with his brother Henry, also suffering from a foot injury, he rejoined his unit, only for it to be despatched to England on 7 October 1900.
Childers's attitude to Britain's establishment and politics had become somewhat equivocal by the start of the First World War. He had resigned his membership of the Liberal Party, and with it his hopes of a parliamentary seat, over Britain's concessions to Unionists and a further postponement of Irish self-rule; he had written works critical of British policy in Ireland and in its South African possessions; above all, in July 1914, he had smuggled guns bought in Germany to supply nationalists in Ireland (a response to the April 1914 Ulster Unionists' importation of rifles and ammunition in the Larne gun-running).
This knowledge was not in wide circulation, but neither was it a great secret, and the official telegram calling Childers to naval service was sent to the Dublin headquarters of the Irish Volunteers, the group to which he had made the delivery. Although in 1914 it could be argued that, in the case of war, the Irish Volunteers might fight on the side of Britain as a means of securing bargaining power in home rule negotiations, these weapons were used against British soldiers, in the Easter Rising of 1916. However, Childers believed that small nations such as Belgium and Serbia would benefit from Britain's defeat of Germany and - as a prospectively independent nation - Ireland too would gain.
In mid-August 1914 he again volunteered and received a temporary commission as lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, although hostile to spending money on armaments at the time The Riddle of the Sands was published, later gave the book the credit for persuading public opinion to fund vital measures against the German naval threat, and he was instrumental in securing Childers's recall.
His first task was, in reversal of the plot of The Riddle of the Sands, to draw up a plan for the invasion of Germany by way of the Frisian Islands. He was allocated to HMS Engadine, a seaplane tender, as an instructor in coastal navigation to newly trained pilots. His duties included flying as a navigator and observer, including a sortie navigating over a familiar coastline in the Cuxhaven Raid, an inconclusive bombing attack on the Cuxhaven airship base on Christmas Day 1914, for which he was mentioned in despatches. In 1915 he was transferred in a similar role to HMS Ben-my-Chree, in which he served in the Gallipoli Campaign and the eastern Mediterranean, earning himself a Distinguished Service Cross.
He was sent back to London in April 1916 to receive his decoration from the king and to serve in the Admiralty. His work here included allocating seaplanes to their intended ships. It took Childers until autumn of that year to extricate himself and train for service with a new coastal motor-boat squadron operating in the English Channel.
On 27 July 1917, in the year following the Easter Rising, Sir Horace Plunkett asked for him to be assigned to the secretariat of Prime Minister Lloyd George's Home Rule Convention initiative in Dublin Castle, a failed Anglo-Irish initiative.
On his return to London in April 1918, Childers was transferred into the newly created Royal Air Force. When Hugh Trenchard formed the Independent Bomber Command he was attached as a group intelligence officer to prepare navigational briefings for attacks on Berlin. The raids were forestalled by the Armistice and Childers's last assignment was to provide an intelligence assessment of the effects of bombing raids in Belgium. Childers departed Royal Air Force service on 10 March 1919.
In autumn 1903 Childers travelled to the United States as part of a reciprocal visit between the Honourable Artillery Company of London and the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts of Boston. At the end of the official visit he elected to remain and explore New England on a hired motor cycle. One day by chance the machine broke down outside the Beacon Hill home of Dr Hamilton Osgood, a prominent physician in the city. Childers diffidently knocked to borrow a spanner and was invited in for dinner and introduced to Dr Osgood's younger daughter, Mary ("Molly") Alden Osgood. The well-read republican heiress and Childers found each other congenial company. Dr Osgood organised the rest of Childers's stay, with much time shared with Molly, and the pair were married at Boston's Trinity Church on 5 January 1904.
Childers returned to London with his wife and resumed his position in the House of Commons. His reputation as an influential author gave the couple access to the political establishment, which Molly relished, but at the same time she set to work to rid Childers of his already faltering imperialism. In her turn Molly developed a strong admiration for Britain, its institutions and, as she then saw it, its willingness to go to war in the interests of smaller nations against the great. Over the next seven years they lived comfortably in their rented flat in Chelsea, supported by Childers's salary--he had received promotion to the position of parliamentary Clerk of Petitions in 1903--his continuing writings and, not least, generous benefactions from Dr Osgood.
Molly, despite a severe weakness in the legs following a childhood skating injury, took enthusiastically to sailing, first in the Seagull and later on many voyages in her father's gift, the Asgard. Childers' letters to his wife show the couple's contentment during this time. Three sons were born: Erskine in December 1905, Henry, who died before his first birthday, in February 1907, and Robert Alden in December 1910.
Childers's first published work was some light detective stories he contributed to the Cambridge Review while he was editor.
His first book was In the Ranks of the C. I. V., an account of his experiences in the Boer War, but he wrote it without any thought of publication: while serving with the Honourable Artillery Company in South Africa he composed many long, descriptive letters about his experiences to his two sisters, Dulcibella and Constance. They and a family friend, Elizabeth Thompson, daughter of George Smith of the publishing house Smith, Elder, edited the letters into book form. The print proofs were waiting for Childers to approve on his return from the war in October 1900 and Smith, Elder published the work in November. It was well-timed to catch the public's interest in the war, which continued until May 1902, and it sold in substantial numbers.
Childers edited his colleague Basil Williams's more formal book, The HAC in South Africa, the official history of the regiment's part in the campaign, for publication in 1903.
In January 1901 Childers started work on his novel, The Riddle of the Sands, but initially progress was slow: it was not until winter of that year that he was able to tell Williams, in one of his regular letters, of the outline of the plot. At the end of the following year, after a hard summer of writing, the manuscript went to Reginald Smith at Smith Elder, but in February 1903, just as Childers was hoping to return to The HAC in South Africa, Smith sent back the novel, with instructions for extensive changes. With the help of his sisters, who cross-checked the new manuscript pages against the existing material, Childers produced the final version in time for publication in May 1903. Based on his own sailing trips with his brother Henry along the German coast, it predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness. There has been much speculation about which of Childers's friends was the model for "Carruthers" in the novel and it seems that he is based not on Henry Childers but on yachting enthusiast Walter Runciman; "Davies", of course, is Childers himself. Because of The Riddle, Childers was invited to join the Savile Club, then a literary centre in London. Widely popular, the book has never gone out of print and in 2003, several centenary editions were published.The Observer included the book on its list of "The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time". The Telegraph listed it as the third best spy novel of all time. It has been called the first spy novel (a claim challenged by advocates of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, published two years earlier), and enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I. It was an extremely influential book: Winston Churchill later credited it as a major reason that the Admiralty decided to establish naval bases at Invergordon, Rosyth on the Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow in Orkney. It was also a notable influence on authors such as John Buchan and Eric Ambler.
Childers's neighbour, Leo Amery, was editor of The Times's History of the War in South Africa, and having already persuaded Basil Williams to write volume four of the work, he used this to persuade Childers to prepare volume five. This profitable commission took up much of Childers's free time until publication in 1907. It drew attention to British political and military errors and made unfavourable contrast with the tactics of the Boer guerrillas.
Motivated by his expectation of war with Germany, Childers wrote two books on cavalry warfare, both strongly critical of what he saw as outmoded British tactics. All were agreed that cavalry should be trained to fight dismounted with firearms, but traditionalists wanted cavalry still to be trained as the arme blanche, charging with lance and sabre. War and the Arme Blanche (1910) carried a foreword from Field Marshal Roberts, and recommended that cavalry "make genuinely destructive assaults upon riflemen and guns" by firing from the saddle - Sheffield describes this tactic as "immensely difficult and generally unrewarding" and Childers's views as "bizarre".
German Influence on British Cavalry (1911) was Childers's "intolerant" rejoinder to criticisms of War and the Arme Blanche made by Prussian general Friedrich von Bernhardi, writing in an unlikely alliance with British General French, who had commanded successful cavalry charges at Elandslaagte and Kimberley. Although the traditional view appears absurd with hindsight (see, for example) it was reestablished as Roberts retired and French and his protégé Major-General Haig rose to the top of the army.
It was as a prospective Liberal Party candidate for Parliament that Childers wrote his last major book: The Framework for Home Rule (1911). Childers's principal argument was an economic one: that an Irish parliament (there would be no Westminster MPs) would be responsible for making fiscal policy, to the benefit of the country, and would hold "dominion" status, in the same detached way in which the Dominion of Canada managed its affairs. His arguments were based in part on the findings of the "Childers Commission" of the 1890s, which was chaired by his cousin, Hugh Childers. Erskine Childers consulted Ulster Unionists in preparing Framework and wrote that their reluctance to accept the policy would easily be overcome. Although, for Childers, it represented a major change from the opinions he had previously held, Irish Home Rule was Liberal Party policy at the time.
There was no single incident which was responsible for Childers's conversion from supporter of the British Empire to his leading role in the Irish revolution. Rather, there was a growing conviction, later turning to "fanatical obsession", that the island of Ireland should have its own government.
An early source of disillusionment with Britain's imperial policy was his realisation that, given more patient and skilful negotiation, the Boer War could have been avoided. His friend and biographer Basil Williams noticed his growing doubts about Britain's actions in South Africa while they were on campaign together: "Both of us, who came out as hide-bound Tories, began to tend towards more liberal ideas, partly from the ... democratic company we were keeping, but chiefly, I think, from our discussions on politics and life generally."
Molly Childers, brought up in a family that traced its roots to the Mayflower, also influenced her husband's outlook on the right of Britain to rule other countries. The ground was well prepared, then, when in the summer of 1908 he and his cousin Robert Barton took a holiday motor tour inspecting agricultural co-operatives in the south and west of Ireland, areas ravaged with poverty. "I have come back," he wrote to Basil Williams, "finally and immutably a convert to Home Rule... though we both grew up steeped in the most irreconcilable sort of Unionism."
In the autumn of 1910 Childers resigned his post as Clerk of Petitions to leave himself free to join the Liberal Party, with its declared commitment to Home Rule, and in May 1912 he secured for himself the candidature in one of the parliamentary seats in the naval town of Devonport. As the well-known writer of The Riddle of the Sands, with its implied support for an expanded Royal Navy, Childers could hardly fail to win the vote whenever the next election was called. The Liberal Party relied on Irish Home Rule MPs for its Commons majority. But in response to threats of civil war from the Ulster Unionists, the party began to entertain the idea of removing some or all of Ulster from a self-governed Ireland. Childers abandoned his candidacy and left the party.
The Liberals' Home Rule Bill, introduced in 1912, would eventually pass into law in 1914, but was immediately - by a separate Act of Parliament - shelved for the duration of the Great War which had just broken out, whilst the Amending Bill to exclude six of the nine counties of Ulster, the duration of whose provisions still remained a matter of debate, was dropped altogether.
The violent suppression of the Easter Rising in 1916 dismayed Childers and he described a proposed British Bill to extend military conscription to Ireland as "insane and criminal". In March 1919, after a severe attack of influenza, his doctors ordered rest in the country. Glendalough was the obvious choice and he joined his cousin Robert Barton there. Barton introduced Childers to the Irish military leader Michael Collins, who in turn introduced him to Éamon de Valera, the President of Sinn Féin. Childers came to believe that his moderate "dominion" proposal would not serve.
At the end of his convalescence Childers returned to Molly at the Chelsea flat, but a month later he received an invitation to meet the Sinn Féin leadership in Dublin. Anticipating an offer of a major rôle, Childers hurried to Dublin but, apart from Collins, he found the Irish leadership wary, or even hostile. Arthur Griffith, in particular, looked on him as at best a renegade and traitor to Britain, or at worst as a British spy. He was appointed to join the Irish delegation from the as-yet-unrecognised Irish State to the Paris Peace Conference. This unpromising undertaking, as Childers saw it, was intended to advance the cause of Irish self-rule by reminding official representatives at the conference of the ideals of freedom over which Britain had gone to war. In this they were unsuccessful, and Childers returned once again to London. He rented a house in Dublin, but Molly was reluctant to join him: mindful of her sons' education, and believing that she and her husband could best serve the cause by influencing opinion in London. She gave up their London home of fifteen years to settle in Dublin, at the end of 1919.
In 1919 Childers was made Director of Publicity for the First Irish Parliament. In 1920 Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a strong attack on British policy. At the 1921 elections, he was elected (unopposed) to the Second Dáil as Sinn Féin member for the Kildare-Wicklow constituency, and published the pamphlet Is Ireland a Danger to England?, which attacked British prime minister David Lloyd George. He became editor of the Irish Bulletin after the arrest of the young Desmond FitzGerald. He stood as an anti-Treaty Sinn Féin candidate at the 1922 general election but lost his seat.
Childers was secretary-general of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British government. He stayed at the delegation headquarters in Hans Place throughout the period of the negotiations, 11 October - 6 December 1921. However, Childers became vehemently opposed to the final draft of the agreement, particularly the clauses that required Irish leaders to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British king. The Treaty was approved by an exhausted Dáil voting 64-57 in January 1922. In the course of the debates some felt that Childers had been insulted by Arthur Griffith, and the matter was debated in June. The treaty continued to divide Sinn Féin and the IRA, and Ireland descended into civil war on 28 June 1922.
During the Civil War, Childers was said to be the man behind the propaganda of the republican movement, and was hunted by National Army soldiers. The death in an ambush of Michael Collins intensified the desire of Free State authorities for retribution, and on 28 September 1922 the Dáil introduced the Army Emergency Powers Resolution, establishing martial law powers and listing carrying firearms without a licence a capital offence.
The author Frank O'Connor was involved with Childers during the later part of the Civil war and gave a colourful picture of Childers's activities. According to O'Connor, he was ostracised from the anti-treaty forces and referred to as "That bloody Englishman". The high command of the anti-treaty forces distanced themselves from Childers on the grounds that he was too infamous to be of any practical use, despite his considerable military experience, and at one stage he was put to work addressing letters in the staff office in Macroom, Cork.
On 10 November, Free State forces burst into the Barton mansion at Glendalough, while Childers was staying there on his way to meet de Valera and arrested him.
Childers was put on trial by a military court on the charge of possessing a small Spanish-made "Destroyer" .32 calibre semi-automatic pistol on his person in violation of the Emergency Powers Resolution. The gun had been a gift from Michael Collins before Collins became head of the pro-treaty Provisional Government. Childers was convicted by the military court and sentenced to death on 20 November 1922.
While his appeal against the sentence was still pending, Childers was executed on 24 November 1922 by firing squad at the Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin. Before his execution he shook hands with the firing squad. He also obtained a promise from his then 16-year-old son, the future President Erskine Hamilton Childers, to seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed his death sentence. His final words, spoken at the firing squad, were: "Take a step or two forward, lads, it will be easier that way."
Childers' body was buried at Beggars Bush Barracks until 1923, when it was exhumed and reburied in the republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.
Winston Churchill, who had exerted pressure on Michael Collins and the Free State government to make the treaty work by crushing the rebellion, expressed the view that, "No man has done more harm or shown more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, actuated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth."
Éamon de Valera said of him, "He died the Prince he was. Of all the men I ever met, I would say he was the noblest".
It was the express wish of Mary Childers, upon her death in 1964, that any writings based upon the extensive and meticulous collection of papers and documents from her husband's in-depth involvement with the Irish struggles of the 1920s should be locked away from anyone's eyes until 50 years after his death. In 1972 Erskine Hamilton Childers started the process of finding an official biographer for his father. In 1974, Andrew Boyle (previous biographer of Brendan Bracken and Lord Reith amongst others) was given the task of exploring the vast Childers archive, and his biography of Robert Erskine Childers was finally published in 1977.
In 1998, BBC Radio 3 broadcast in the Drama on 3 slot a play by Leigh Jackson called A Flag Unfurled, based on the life, times and writings of Childers. It featured Michael Maloney as Childers, Deborah Norton as Molly Childers, Natascha McElhone as his sister Dulcie and Laura Hughes as his sister Constance. It was produced in Belfast by Roland Jaquarello.
Late in 2011 production company Black Rock Pictures included the arrest and trial of Childers in its six-part television series Bású na gCarad (The Friends' Execution), broadcast on TG4 in September 2012. Childers was played by Dominic Frisby.
In the eyes of the cabinet, Childers's position of leadership within the Republican movement made it imperative that he be treated harshly... The government held the leaders of the Republican movement responsible for leading trusting and naive men and women into a civil war.
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